Prominent neo-atheist Sam Harris continues to reject theism, and does so thoughtfully and eloquently. In his latest book, Waking Up, he continues to argue the case against religion, but makes a powerful case for spirituality. Harris defines spirituality as an inner sense of a good and powerful reality, based on sound self-awarenesses and insightful questioning of one’s own consciousness. This type of spirituality, quite rightly, is devoid of theistic angels and demons. Harris reveals more in his interview with Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
From the NYT:
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.
Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?
Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.
The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.
The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.
G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?
S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.
Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.
And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.
G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.
S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.
For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.
However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.
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